It’s mid-morning during an early March snow flurry. I’m on the number 50 bus from Mablethorpe to Lincoln, although I’m only hanging around for the Louth to Wragby leg. It’s the second bus of the day so the passengers are mostly day trippers heading for the bright spires of the city and there’s a surplus of friendly eye contact and smiling. Normally, I’m stuck on the early morning redeye that heaves with students and people commuting to the office. The vibe is a refreshing change.
The driver lets me out at the Stagecoach sign on the way in to Wragby opposite a row of bungalows punctuated with temporarily redundant solar panels. I pull the brim of my hood forward to shelter my glasses from the snow and laugh when it doesn’t work. No malice of nature is spoiling my mood today, I’m on my way to see an old friend. I’ve got barely half a mile to walk, but it’ll be enough to soak me to the bone and turn my hands to ice if they stray even momentarily from my pockets. There’s no-one else out walking that I can see, and I take a perverse pleasure in representing the lunatic fringe of the pedestrian community.
My friends think I’m mad, but this is a road that was set out before me long ago, during a late-night trip to a supermarket in Manchester. I remember standing in front of a pre-Brexit smorgasbord of fruit and wondering where the apple breeds of my youth had gone. There were Pink Ladies and Braeburns by the sack load but not a hint of Cox or Russet. I went home and spent the rest of the evening delving through murky parts of the internet in search of ancient lore. My driftwood carriage clock had long since seen off midnight when I came across a list of apple varieties that the writer claimed were likely extinct but may still exist in the wild. Suddenly my life’s purpose unfurled before me.
Serendipitously, my dad had just used his retirement payoff to buy a field in the middle of the Wolds. Conservation area rules meant we couldn’t build anything, but an orchard would be a different matter entirely. Not one to ignore destiny, I made plans. If I could find lost apple varieties in the wild, I could maybe take clippings and save them for posterity. Once I’d got the trees growing and producing fruit, I planned to set up bins full of free apples along a nearby footpath and amaze passers-by with the wonders of their heritage. Local produce would be saved, and the tyranny of the Pink Lady would be over.
What’s more, I could write a blog about it and stop my family ridiculing my claims that I wanted to be a writer. I flung my Mancunian fastness onto the housing market and accepted the first insultingly low offer that came my way.
Ironically, when I went back to the supermarket the following week, there were Cox’s everywhere. The previous week’s problem had been down to a glut of demand rather than a lack of supply. Still no Russets though. It didn’t matter. My mind was made up.
There were once large numbers of orchards scattered across Lincolnshire, but they were slowly replaced by housing or arable farmland and now only a handful remain. Most of the enduring fruit varieties were raised either by Thomas Laxton of Stamford or William Ingall of Grimoldby. Amazingly, it turned out that Ingall’s orchard was located down the same dead-end lane as a friend of mine who has spent years offering apples to anyone who seemed even vaguely keen. It didn’t take long for me to leap to the conclusion that the tree in his garden had to be one of the missing varieties and I was soon lurking on his doorstep, armed with some brand-new secateurs and a roughly 50–50 spread of enthusiasm and ignorance. The historical record will state that the first apple I planted was a sprig cut from his garden, but my poorly informed grafting technique got me nothing but a dying branch.
Instead of continuing to blunder along on my own, I turned to the experts and rang a local dealer who sold me half a dozen heritage trees but kindly warned me that the reason most Lincolnshire apples have not survived is because they weren’t particularly wonderful to begin with. Officially, an orchard is any collection of more than five fruit trees so six was more than I needed to be a professional in the eyes of the law. Driving down the road and handing over cash was a much less dramatic experience than I had originally planned but needs must. I wanted to get enough trees in the ground to give me a viable environment for the obscure varieties I would soon be tracking down across the hills and fens of Lincolnshire.
Over the first year I added to my selection and made a list of where each variety was planted that was almost definitely accurate. I wrote as well. Infrequently-humorous blog posts describing my adventures spilled across my wordpress site, attracting dozens if not fewer views and sympathetic nods from people I had previously considered friends. Every afternoon I could spare was spent wandering dreamily around my trees, lovingly inspecting every leaf and branch. It was my very own orchard, full of life and vigour.
Two years after selling up and moving home to the land of the yellow bellies, I had thirteen trees and my first crop: half a dozen large yellow cooking apples culled from the still-flimsy branches of Dr. Clifford. I had no lost varieties though and had not even seen one that I knew of, despite traipsing for miles around various fields and hedgerows. I had run into problems, and those problems were illustrated within the 650 pages of the National Apple Register of the United Kingdom.
Mrs Toogood, it told me for example, was a variety of apple first exhibited in 1934 and last seen in 1946. It was medium sized with ribbing around the eye and a yellow skin with red blush. What it didn’t tell me was who raised it or where they did it. Or how I was going to differentiate it from all the other yellow and red apples in the register. There are a lot of them. Trust me, I’ve done the research.
Back in the present day, I eventually leave the bustle of the main road and turn north towards West Torrington. I’m barely a mile away from the pubs and restaurants of Wragby but the enveloping line of trees feels like a gateway to another world. It always amazes me how close the wilderness is. Once I’m on the side road, I relax slightly and stop worrying about trucks spraying me with ice water. The occasional muddy four-by-four still comes past on its way to the village, but there are no pedestrians. In fact, in all the times I’ve walked down or past this road, I’ve never seen a single soul on foot.
Whatever it is that puts them off, there is something undeniably invigorating about braving the elemental weather. Wet snow swoops in from the east, turning to water when it hits either the ground or my allegedly weatherproof clothing. Although trees line the western side of the road there is precious little cover for walkers from the prevailing winds. I doubt the trees were planted like this deliberately but, if they were, then it’s a cunning way to discourage tourists.
At this time of year, the trees look less inviting than normal, crooked branches stretching from trunks wrapped in sea-green moss and ivy. I pause for a moment and look closely at one of the seemingly moribund branches. There’s a bud, signs of life. Once I’ve seen one, I spot several more and then I can’t stop. There are hundreds on almost every branch. Life is returning to the ancient verge.
Soon these buds will turn to blossoms, enticing the local insect life and spreading pollen hither and yon. I can just about see a cluster of beehives a way off down the road which probably explains why there are so many apple trees hereabouts. Apples are notoriously reluctant to self-pollinate, relying instead on pollen brought across from nearby trees. The fruit will always be true, but the seeds will give you a mix of the two parents and that may change from year to year. It’s how proper Orchardmen raise new varieties but means you have little chance of growing a tree that is the same as its parent.
Over time, that stopped being a problem for me. It’s the tree that stirs my heart, its gloriously unique roots, trunk and branches. Its arboreal provenance does little to stir my soul. Eventually I decided that, rather than looking for lost varieties, I would hunt for trees I liked and then attempt to grow their fruit. I started by gathering windfalls from a long-abandoned orchard, not because I knew the variety but because the place reminded me of “jumpers for goalposts” football games with childhood friends. It’s a far cry from my original plan, but these trees still feel like part of Lincolnshire’s heritage. Or my heritage in Lincolnshire maybe.
Whilst I reminisce about my childhood sporting legend, I reach the place where my old friend stands and I lovingly stroke its gnarled trunk. I don’t take too long about it in case my fingers freeze to the wood, but it’s nice to feel the craggy bark. The Rowson Brothers of West Torrington travelled this road towards the end of the nineteenth century, taking apples for sale in Wragby. I like to imagine a solitary apple, maybe a now extinct Garrett’s Golden Pippin, bouncing out of the cart and taking root in the undergrowth.
I once brought shears to this site, thinking to snip off a bud-bearing branch for grafting back home, but I didn’t get round to it. Why damage the tree when it literally flings nutritious seedpods at you every October? Nothing came of the pips I planted last year but I’ll keep trying. Maybe I didn’t dry them for long enough before wrapping them in moist kitchen roll. One year of famine won’t put me off.
It may not resemble the professional ideal, but this tree is still beautiful to me. It boasts a curmudgeonly rampage of criss-crossing branches that would send a commercial grower to an early grave. Mundane orchard trees are ruthlessly pruned to resemble an open goblet shape, but in the wild they do their own thing.
I’d love to spend longer here but the snow is soaking through my waterproof jacket as if it’s trying to make a point so I head back to town. Visiting wild apple trees always makes me yearn for my own patch and, before I head home for the day, I take a walk along the Louth Navigation canal and sit back amongst my clump of unruly saplings. I might have planted them in rows but that’s where the order ends. Every tree plots its own course. Peasgood Nonsuch resembles a two-dimensional cartoon cactus whereas Ingall’s Red looks like a bush more than it does a tree. It was attacked by rabbits two years ago but still defiantly bears fruit.
In truth, my feelings about this orchard are mixed. Its existence means so much to me, but the neat rows cause me grief. It is undeniably fabricated, the construct of an orderly mind. I’m already planning Orchard Number Two, a wild and windy place full of trees planted wherever seems right and with maybe an Oak or Ash thrown in for good measure. It will be a place where I’m tolerated as an outsider rather than revered as a creator. I might never find Mrs Toogood, but I still can’t wait to make my own addition to Lincolnshire’s apple heritage.
Mike Fowler works in a community centre and has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. He loves cakes, apples and folklore and spends his spare time writing about them, much to the bemusement of his family and friends.
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